The gas chamber that was located in San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, US. The chamber was dismantled in 2019 when Governor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on capital punishment in California and ordered the execution sites to be dismantled.
The gas chamber that was located in San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, US. The chamber was dismantled in 2019 when Governor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on capital punishment in California and ordered the execution sites to be dismantled.

The sociology of punishment seeks to understand why and how we punish; the general justifying aim of punishment and the principle of distribution. Punishment involves the intentional infliction of pain and/or the deprivation of rights and liberties. Sociologists of punishment usually examine state-sanctioned acts in relation to law-breaking; why, for instance, citizens give consent to the legitimation of acts of violence.

Two of the most common political and ethical motivations for formal punishment are utilitarianism and retributivism. Both these concepts have been articulated by law-makers and law-enforcers, but may be seen as descriptive rather than explanative. Sociologists note that although attempts of justification are made in terms of these principles, this does not fully explain why violent punitive acts occur. Social psychology and symbolic interactionism often inform theory and method in this area.


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Retributivism covers all theories that justify punishment because the offender deserves it. This is interpreted in two ways, either:

Retributive theories usually put forward that deserving is a ≤sufficient≥ reason for punishment.

The main strands of retributivism are:

The nature of desert means that the offender must be blameworthy and that an offender deserves punishment simply because he has offended, and so his punishment must relate to his wrongdoing. It can, therefore, be said to be backward-looking.

The theory of retributivism does propose a number of purposes of punishment: to restore the balance (whether according to Lex Talionis or the Unfair Advantage Principle), to openly and emphatically denounce crime, or to provide satisfaction. The principles of distribution can be derived from these purposes.

There are 3 main methods for deciding on punishment.

Critique of retributivism

The above explanations for deciding on punishment raise a few issues:

Therefore, it can be seen that retributivist theories are not adequate to explain why and how we punish.

Retributivism as a justification for punishment can be seen to fall under the category of a Theory of the Right rather than a Theory of the Good.


Utilitarianism, as the name suggests and tells, covers all theories that justify the evil of punishment only when that punishment has some utility. It is therefore forward looking, and consequentialist in nature [Baker, 1971:69], as it holds the belief that, ultimately, the only morally significant features of an act are the good and bad consequences produced by it.

The word utility has been used to justify punishment in two different ways in utilitarian writing:

However most utilitarians agree that not only must punishment have both use and value, but also that there be no other solution that would deter as effectively with less distress [Honderich 1989:59].

While utilitarianists may slightly disagree on why the evil of punishment can be justified, authors agree that the purpose of punishment is to reduce crime. This purpose directly relates to the principle of distribution of utilitarianism. Most utilitarianists agree that there are three ways to reduce crime: incapacitation, deterrence and reform.

There are 2 main types of prevention: specific and general prevention. Specific prevention is aimed at the offender him/herself whilst general prevention is aimed at the public in general.

Specific Prevention

Wright [1982] in his discussion of Utilitarianism, describes three main goals of individual prevention.

General Prevention

General prevention uses the punishment of the offender to prevent others from committing crimes. It has been argued that sending an offender to prison has three effects.

A number of issues are associated with the utilitarian justification of punishment:

Utilitarianism as a justification for punishment can be seen to fall under the category of a Theory of the Good rather than a Theory of the Right.

Critique of utilitarianism

If utilitarian justifications of punishment were sound, then one would expect to find certain conditions met by those who are punished. Looking specifically at imprisonment, one would conclude that the people in our prisons are dangerous or have a long criminal record (and are therefore in need of capacitation), that the amount of recidivism is low (as offenders will have been deterred from committing future crimes) and that there will be programs for rehabilitation and opportunities for reform in place.

However a NSW Prison Report found that:

From these and other statistics, researchers [including Wright, 1982; Sutherland & Cressey, 1960; Melossi, 1998; Rusche, 1998; Duff, 1994; Carlen, 1994] and Mann, 1995] have suggested utilitarian justifications cannot be overwhelming assumed from the studied data. One conclusion that can and is often drawn from prison statistics, however, is that:

Whatever regional and national differences there might be in opinions about which offences deserve custody, the poor, the disturbed, the migrant, [and] disadvantaged ethnic minorities are consistently over-penalised and over-imprisoned. [Hudson, 1993:3]

What then is the reason that we imprison these people? Utilitarianists have no answer.

Marxist theories of punishment

These theories offer explanations as to why we imprison offenders not with claims of crime preventions, but that it is done with the goal of controlling those groups “whose socially disadvantaged position makes them volatile, disaffected and thus threatening”, Duff, 1994:306].

Criminal conduct is not a lower class monopoly, but is distributed throughout the various classes. But as has been shown, the same is not true of the distribution of punishment, which falls, overwhelmingly and systematically, on the poor and the disadvantaged. Discriminatory decision-making throughout the whole criminal justice system ensures that the socially advantaged are routinely filtered out: they are given the benefit of the doubt, or are defined as good risks, or simply have access to the best legal advice. Serious, deep-end punishments such as imprisonment are predominantly reserved for the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted, and those who lack social support and personal assets. Increasingly, this class bias had taken on a racial complexion, as disadvantaged minority groups come to be massively over-represented in the prison population., Duff, 1994:306] The benefits of using a marxist framework to answer this question is that it allows us to understand why offenders from the working class are imprisoned and offenders from the middle/upper classes are not. Marxist theory is based upon the idea of class struggle and ideology. Important to our understanding of imprisonment are the two concepts of hegemony and relative autonomy. Hegemony is in simple terms leadership with the consent of the led (that is leadership that is considered by those who are led to be the legitimate exercise of leadership).

Marxist theories tells us then, that the reason we imprison offenders is to control those who are a threat to dominant values.

See also


Further reading

  • Honderich, Ted (2006). Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited (Revised ed.). London, UK; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press. ISBN 0-7453-2132-1. OCLC 61425518.
  • Johnston, Norman Bruce, Leonard D. Savitz, and Marvin E. Wolfgang (1970). The Sociology of Punishment and Correction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley. ISBN 0-471-44633-5. OCLC 61790.
  • Miethe, Terance D. and Hong Lu (2005). Punishment: A Comparative Historical Perspective. Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-511-08050-6. OCLC 60326743.